The line snakes through aisles four, five, and six, with half of the aisles’ contents on the floor. Some parents are haphazardly returning toys their screaming children were trying to sneak into their baskets. Other patrons are wipings shelves clean of wrapping paper and Christmas bags. As for me, a Dollar Tree floor sales associate with five shoplifters caught under my name, I just want to clock out and get my Double Whopper from Burger King.
“Next in line to register three!” As I call the next person, I see an elderly lady with a silvery gray bob cut carrying twenty Jesus candles walking to my register. The guy behind her is carrying two stuffed bears. Why he waited thirty minutes in line for rip-off carnival-level, stuffed animals is beyond me.
I turn my attention back to the candle lady. “Hello, ma’am! How are you doing today?”
She gives me a reluctant thumbs up. “Eh…Good.” I recognize the accent and switch gears.
“Tiene muchas velas.”
She sounds more at ease as she says, “¡Ah, sí! Serán favores de fiesta para mi iglesia.“ I start scanning the same candle repeatedly since they’re all the same type. Being a cashier requires shortcuts.
“Next on register one!” Sadie, our manager, just finished ringing up a couple with two wailing children, devastated and pissed after being denied the knockoff Voltron figurines. Teddy bear guy is next in line, but he lets a family with a cart full of hot pockets, cereal, and Santa hats go ahead of him. What is up with this guy? If he went to Sadie's register, he could be out of here in three minutes.
I keep scanning until I hear, “Ay! Para!” Before I knew it, I had scanned thirty-three candles.
“Oops!” I reconfigure the register. “Lo siento, señora. Voy a arreglarlos.” I start scanning the candles to return the extra thirteen and hear the teddy bear guy chuckling behind her. What’s so funny? Huh? I feel my face turn red and my jaw tightens as I scan.
I hear Eric behind me say, “Next in line to register two,” at a volume that can’t compete with the crowd.
Sadie glances over her shoulder to see who made that mousy announcement. “Speak up, Eric!” She scolds him while scanning a never-ending stream of ham and bacon hot pockets.
“NEXT IN LINE TO REGISTER 2!” Eric puts so much soul into it that he is sweating through his jacked Santa Claus sweater. In the meantime, teddy bear guy motions for a man hauling two full baskets, overflowing with Halloween candy that has been reduced to $0.25 per bag, to go ahead of him. Teddy bear guy gives me a glance and I can see his smile from under his mask that pushes up the bottoms of his eyelids. Trying to look innocent, are you? Well, I bet those pockets are stuffed with lighters or laxative pills that you can’t buy as a minor without your mommy. I’ve encountered plenty of you guys before.
I turn back to the candle lady as I wrap the last candle in newspaper. “Su total es de $22.37.”
“¡Muchas gracias, cariña! ¡Feliz Navidad!”
I wave as she carries the box labeled iced tea filled with newspaper-wrapped candles. “¡Feliz Navidad!” Without looking up from my register, I call, “Próximo cliente-,“ frick, “Uh, next customer to register three, please!”
Teddy bear guy finally decides to check out at my counter. I’m eyeing him up and down as he lays the two bears on my conveyer belt. Why did you skip the other two registers? Is it because Sadie looks like a seasoned floor sales associate that can smell a shoplifter a mile away? Is it because you think I’d go easier on you than Eric since I’m a girl? Keep your sexism out of your thievery, young man!
After I scan the bears, he opens his mouth to divert my attention, saying, “So…”
“Hm?” I look up from my register. Our eyes meet, and he immediately shifts them to the left, a tell-tale sign of a liar.
“You speak Spanish?”
“Yeah.” I stare at his pockets, trying to deduce what could be inside aside from sweaty hands.
“Lemme guess. You’re Puerto Rican?”
“No. I’m white-white. Spanish isn’t my first language.”
“Oh, that’s cool! I’m Colombian…”
He looks like he has more to say, but I have sixty more people in line on Christmas week, lower back pain, and a bone to pick with this guy. “Do you want a bag?”
“Your total is-“ He picks up the bears and steps to the side. I freaking knew it! I stop him before he leaves the counter. “Hey!” He whips himself around, and his eyes look like they’re about to pop out of their sockets. “Are you going to pay?” I give him the stink eye he seems to fold.
“Shoot! Yeah! Sorry!” Not so slick now, huh? He fumbles in his back pocket, suffocating the two bears under his left arm.
I fold my arms and arch one eyebrow. “You got anything else in there?”
“What? No! It was a mistake! Honest-” He pulls out every pocket in his pants and denim jacket. The only things that fall out are three ketchup packets, a Burger King receipt, and a straw wrapper.
“Okay, I believe you. Your total is “$3.78.” He might not be hiding anything else, but I still caught him before he slipped out the door with two free bears.
“Thanks…” He double-clicks the power button on his phone and pulls down his mask to unlock Apple Pay. He’s growing a bit of a mustache and stubble. His nose is rather large, with a high bridge. He seems to be about 2 inches taller than me while I wear my platform sneakers. His chunky glasses don’t hide his eye bags. His cheeks are a little red, probably from the embarrassment of getting caught red-handed. He’s not bad to look at, just sleep-deprived like me. If he hadn’t attempted to pull a fast one, I’d say he’s cute.
“Would you like your receipt?”
“N-no, thank you…“
“Well then, Merry Christmas, and have a good day!”
“You, too-” He is cut off by the shove of a 4’11” middle schooler sprinting past us.
Eric panics behind me, “You need to pay for that!” Sadie drops the hot pockets mid-scan and turns into a soccer goalie between the little thief and the exit. She is in position to cover the sides of the aisle, but she doesn’t account for the brat sliding between her legs.
He crashes into the candle lady, nearly tripping through the doors, and blurts, “Sorry,” after she falls to the ground with the crunch of glass. As I phone the police, Sadie and teddy bear guy rush over to help her.
Sadie returns with the box of broken Jesus candles to dump into my waste bin. “That child! I understand shoplifting, but shoving into that sweet old grandma like that and leaving her on the floor? Lord knows what I’d do to his sorry behind if he were my son!”
“Ahaha…yeah…” I pick up the two abandoned teddy bears. “Where did the other guy go?”
“Your customer? He helped the lady back and ran after the brat.”
“Oh! That’s good…” I place the bears into my drawer full of blank receipt rolls in case he returns for them.
A crowd forms outside the entrance ten minutes later. I’m scanning thirty chocolate bars and can’t see anything besides the red and blue lights. Police cars should come with seizure warnings. I can make out a familiar pair of chunky glasses and a surgical mask beside an officer restraining the little thief from earlier in a hug as he wriggles around like a cat trying to escape a bath. Teddy bear guy pulls down his mask and takes off his glasses to show the officer his purple and blue eye.
My conscience returns to the register when I hear, “Uh, ma’am?”
“I’m pretty sure you passed thirty chocolate bars a while ago.”
My four-hour shift turns into seven. It’s 10:52 pm and the line only takes up half an aisle as Eric sweeps beside me. “How has Christmas week been for you, Eric?”
“Thrilling. That kid slipped four lighters into his pockets and made a run for it when I caught him.”
“Dang. My customer bolted after him and never came back for his bears.” I pull out the abandoned bears from my drawer.
“Oh yeah! He’s my friend, Theo!” Theo. Theodore. Theodore Roosevelt. Teddy Roosevelt. How fitting.
“Could you give them to him?”
“Actually…” he gives me a coy look. I restrain myself from wrinkling my forehead as I raise my eyebrow. “He works at the Burger King across the parking lot. He might be there now.”
“Yeah, and he knows about you, too.”
“Makes sense since I’m there after almost every shift.”
“Wanna return the bears to him yourself after work?”
“Sure!” Eric and I lock up and head over to Burger King, which is also severely understaffed; one girl is manning the drive-through and register, and another guy is frying french fries and assembling burgers as if he were on a game of Chopped with the looming threat of Gordon Ramsey verbally fileting him. That’s teddy bear guy.
“Hey! Theo!” Eric waves at him as he approaches the counter. Theo turns around, which stops Eric and me in our tracks. “Yikes! Did that kid do that to you?”
“Oh, this?” Theo presents the busted side of his face to us as he dispenses Sprite into an extra-large cup. “Yeah. I caught him hiding in the laundromat down the street. He put up a fight, but when you have younger siblings, these punches are nothing.”
He’s taking things lightly and I want to laugh with him, but I don’t think I deserve to laugh right now. Instead, I ask, “Are you okay?”
Theo looks at me, down at the extra-large Sprite, and then at Eric. Eric looks at him, then at me, and then pulls out his phone. “Aw, man! 11:07 pm! Gotta go, guys. Strict Asian parents, y’know?”
“Do you need a ride?” I ask him.
“Nope! My mom’s waiting for me in the parking lot.” Eric leans over the counter and gestures to Theo. “Our vigilante of justice over here might need one, though.”
Theo waves his hands. “What? No! I can take the bus!”
I interject, “I can take you home if you want. I’m going to order anyway.”
Eric puts his arm around me. “See! It works out perfectly! Now, I gotta get going, or my mom will make good on her threat of signing me up to work at Kumon on top of retail.”
After Eric leaves, I order my Double Whopper from Theo’s coworker, Bitha, and sit at the table closest to the register. No one else is here but three twenty-something-year-olds itching for 11:30 pm to come so we can go home.
“One Double Whopper.” The smell calls me over before Theo does. I’m foaming at the mouth, if not drooling. “Here you go, Jessica.”
I take the burger into my hands and look up at him. “How do you know my name?”
He laughs and pulls on his name tag clipped to his black polo.
“Oh, yeah! Duh!” He walks back to the deep fryer and dumps in another batch of fries. I feel stupid. I was trying to pin him as a thief earlier, and now I’m eating the burger he made for me. Well, he’s paid to do this, so maybe there’s no altruism in the Double Whopper.
I devour the burger in five bites as Bitha and Theo close up. Standing for seven hours behind a register with only one ten-minute break made me ravenous. I throw away my wrapper as the two come out in their coats, chatting about something I can’t hear. Bitha looks at me and gives Theo a firm slap on the back. The sound he made makes me think she deflated his lungs. She takes out a ball of keys, barely held together by a keychain, and shuffles them around until she finds the one for the main entrance. “You two go first. I’ll lock up.”
Theo opens the door for me and says, “Thanks, Bitha! See you tomorrow!”
I’m the last to say, “Good night,” as we walk to my car. Theo has his mask on, but I can see his breath spilling from the top, clouding his glasses. When we get in the car, I turn on the engine and set the heater to seventy degrees. I usually drive in the cold to save gas, but I turn it on when I have other people with me.
“I appreciate you doing this for me,” he says while looking straight ahead.
“No problem…I mean, after I talked to you at the store, I owe you an apology and want to make it up to you somehow.”
“It’s okay, really.” He clicks his seat belt. “I understand. Eric tells me about the weekly shoplifting. You were just doing your job. Acting like I was about to pee myself and forgetting to pay painted me in a suspicious light.”
“Pee yourself? Why?” Theo takes off his glasses. His face is turned in my direction with his eyes on something outside the driver’s side window. Maybe that’s why he works in the kitchen while Bitha takes orders. He can’t look people in the eye.
“I don’t know…” He laughs as he uses his uniform to wipe away the condensation on his glasses.
“I still feel bad, but you caught the real guy! That kid has been a notorious shoplifter ever since December rolled around. He’d weave in and out of the store because of the crowds.”
“Yeah!” I adjust my mirror and pull up Wayz on my phone. “What did Eric call you? A ‘vigilante of justice?’”
Theo puts his glasses back on, which immediately fog up again as his mask funnels his breath onto his lenses. “Guess that makes me pretty cool, right?”
“Totally! Now, what’s your address?” He lives about ten minutes away, Wayz didn’t account for the downed power lines, which add an extra five minutes to our drive. To be honest, I wouldn’t mind another detour. He tells me about how he wanted to go to culinary school but settled for a bachelor's degree in nutrition which is ironic considering his current job. He tends to gesticulate with his hands to compensate for how his foggy glasses and mask cover up ninety percent of his face. His ears poke out from the hood of his jacket in a lost-puppy-swaddled-in-a-blanket kind of way.
When we arrive at his home, he’s as polite as ever, saying, “Thanks for the ride. It was nice meeting you!”
“You too!” After he is halfway up the steps to his porch, I get out of the car. “Wait!” I follow him carrying the two stuffed bears, one in each hand. “You forgot these.”
“Oh! Thanks!” He takes the bear from my left hand. “You can keep the other one.”
“Huh?” I look at the remaining bear. “Thanks, but why?”
“Consider it an early Christmas gift.”
“But who were they originally for?”
Theo hesitates again, fiddling with his bear’s paws. “This one is for my grandma.” He looks at me and doesn’t look somewhere else after our eyes meet this time. “I bought that one for you.”
“Really?” A cloud of mist escapes my mouth, and my eyebrow arches. I’ve been criticized for looking too judgy when I do that, so I try to soften my expression. “Why?”
“I just…” He leans against his front door while keeping his bear and hand warm in his jacket’s pocket while the other hand scratches the back of his head. “I just wanted to. Sorry, you don’t need to think about it too hard…”
“Well,” I take a step down his stairs, “I really appreciate it.” I reach the ground and turn to walk to my car. “I better get going. Merry Christmas, Theo!”
I continue to walk and see him waving from his porch. “Yeah! You too-!“ He is cut off and nearly falls backward as the door opens behind him. I see a familiar silvery gray bob over Theo’s shoulder.
A sweet old Spanish lady asks, “¿Theo, con quién hablas?”
Theo turns to her as he catches himself using the door frame. “¿Abuela?” It was the candle lady from work!
She points at me as her eyebrows shoot halfway up her forehead. “¿Ella fue la chica de la tienda?”
I turn back around and walk up the porch. “¡Sí, ese fui yo!”
“¿Cómo estás, cariña?”
We talk on the porch until I let out a violent sneeze. The next thing I know, I’m sitting at their dining room table sipping homemade hot chocolate as Theo’s Abuela gushes about her family. His little siblings run around the house even though it’s close to midnight. One of them plops herself on the chair beside me and stares at me unblinkingly. I engage in this unspoken staring contest until she asks, “Theo, is this the girl you and Eric were talking about?”
Theo palms her face to cover her mouth. “¡Sh-shut up!” His sister bites his hand and punches his stomach, leading him to cave over in his seat.
After their Abuela scolds her, she leans over to me and side-eyes Theo. “Tenía razón. Eres tan linda.” His grandma is smoother than he is. Yet, I find myself a little flushed as I face him while caressing the stuffed bear under the table.